Following in the footsteps of several biographers, including A. Scott Berg, Garson Kanin, Barbara Leaming, and even Katharine Hepburn herself in Me: Stories of My Life (1991), William Mann produces a well-researched and carefully documented work that is a sensitive and thorough examination of the extremely complex personality of one of America’s most glamorous and talented film and stage stars. In Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, Mann takes readers through the ninety-six years of Hepburn’s life with great attention to the details not only of her public personality but also of the private person who so assiduously created and nurtured that public image.
Born in New England to a family with social aspirations, Katharine had to share the attention of her parents with five brothers and sisters. She was especially competitive with her older brother, Tom, who claimed the attention of her father, a physician specializing in venereal disease. Katharine might have turned to her mother, Kit, for attention had not Mrs. Hepburn been frequently away from home campaigning first for women’s suffrage and later for their right to birth control. Mann’s perspicuity in understanding the private aspect of Hepburn’s life is nowhere better demonstrated than in his emphasizing the importance of her experience as a young girl trying to gain her father’s attention and praise.
Her lifelong participation in demanding sports actually began when she competed in physical activity with her older and athletic brother. Finally, she threw off her girlhood altogether and took on the dress and persona of a boy, wearing boys’ clothes and short pants and calling herself “Jimmy.” As Mann so aptly observes, “Jimmy” remained the central part of her private character for the rest of her life, which helps explain her preference for slacks and pantsuits over the elaborate dresses more common to the women of her era and social status. It was the persistence of “Jimmy” in her personality that moves Mann to point out that while Hepburn emulated her mother as an independent woman, she would rather have been a man much like her father.
Hepburn left her family for Bryn Mawr College, where she had academic problems for her first two years but in her final years was able to pull herself together, perhaps because she began to appear in plays and to attend plays in New York with campus friends. Somewhere the urge to be an actress was ignited, in no small measure by her constant need to be the center of attention, a need never really satisfied at home. What may also have attracted her to acting was that the theater and its practitioners have always exhibited a liberal attitude toward complex sexual makeup. Indeed, one of the major themes of Mann’s book is the sexual ambiguity exhibited by Hepburn. As she was completing her work at Bryn Mawr, whatever her sexual ambiguities in her mature years, she fell in love with the rising poet H. Phelps Putman.
Immediately upon graduating Kate took a role in The Czarina with the Auditorium Players in Baltimore and performed in two other productions before the company went out of business. Moving to New York she lived with Phelps Putman in a relationship that was apparently platonic. At this time she met the man who would ultimately become her husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, known to her as “Luddy.” Kate was not in love with Luddy, but, trying to recover from the demise of a Broadway show in which she had had a significant role, she married the man whom she often characterized as the best friend she ever had. Indeed, there never seemed to have been much sexual activity between the two, and just as Kate seemed to have bisexual tendencies, so did Luddy. It was in 1930 that Kate met Laura Harding, the woman who would in one way or another share her life for many years. It was also in 1930 that Hepburn played a major role in Art and Mrs. Bottle , a show that became a Broadway hit. There followed two successful theatrical years and,...
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